Tuesday, 24 January 2012

UK government looked to overrule result of Gibraltar referendum

An interesting story appeared in today's Independent, which at first glance seems somewhat obscure and irrelevant.

Oliver Wright examines revelations in Peter Hain's memoirs that Tony Blair and Jack Straw entered into "secret talks" with the Spanish government over the future of Gibraltar. The only reason the negotiations broke down, it is alleged, is that the Spanish got "cold feet" after a "full agreement" had been reached. So not at all to do with a lack of vigour on the part of the Labour government. That is interesting.

Hain revealed that "Jack's desire to do something about Gibraltar coincided with my gut instinct that it was ridiculous in the modern age for Britain to have a colony on the tip of Spain nearly 2,000 miles away" while the Prime Minister was keen to "secure a better relationship with Spain and to remove it [Gibraltar] as an obstruction to our relations within Europe". Hain points out that the objections of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar were overruled by a government not terribly interested in "local politicians who insisted that the constitutional arrangements should not be altered".

This is relevant for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we witnessed on Question Time last week in respect to the Falkland Islands and our obligations towards its citizens, there is a continuing debate in respect to the future of British dependencies. That is a separate issue but is is too glib to suggest, as Peter Hain does, that the argument can be reduced to one about how "ridiculous" it is to retain Gibraltar in the post-colonial age. On one level I naturally agree with him, but what he and - apparently - Blair and Straw overlooked is the fact that there is a human dimension to this. Hain omits to mention Gibraltarians other than their being a "block" to European progress and speaks disparagingly about their democratically elected politicians. What he doesn't do it explain why the people of Gibraltar feel so strongly about remaining separate from Spain, the identity and pride they take in their own House of Assembly and why the UK government should feel it can ride roughshod over the wishes of that elected assembly. It seems quite ironic that, in spite of condemning colonialism as "ridiculous", the UK government approach towards Gibraltar's people constituted a classic exercise in colonial arrogance.

A key fact that Hain appears to forget is that the future of Gibraltar had been subject to two previous referenda - in 1967 and 2002. I was actually in Gibraltar shortly after the second of these and can affirm the opposition to any deals being done with the Spanish - either secret or otherwise. The results of these referenda were not in doubt, with the 99.19% and 98.49% respectively of the local population voting for the status quo.

Hain's memoirs seem to suggest that even after this the British-Spanish negotiations continued, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully. Hain could have conceded that the public verdict brought an end to the possibility of talks, but strangely he seemed not to see this as a problem - instead blaming the Spanish having "cold feet". At the time, Straw dismissed the referendum as "eccentric", with his Spanish counterpart labelling it as "illegal" and "against all UN resolutions". Presumably that includes the right to self-determination as stated in the UN Charter?

The curious thing is that the British-Spanish proposal always, in theory, required the consent of Gibraltarians. It is hard to imagine what they imagined "consent" meant if not the democratic verdict of Gibraltar's people. Perhaps the kind of "consent" Labour took for granted for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Of course, this is more significant than a previous British government arrogantly overruling the democratic will of people living 1,000 miles away. It is no surprise that Westminster thinks it knows best as far as constitutional questions are concerned. But this is a lesson for the Scottish government in its dealings with their UK counterparts. It is one thing to have a democratic mandate to ask a question; another to ensure that the outcome of that referendum is respected and upheld.

I have no doubt about Alex Salmond's negotiation skills, nor do I doubt that David Cameron will be obligated to accept the outcome. What is concerning has been the actions of the Conservatives in recent weeks, rumours of legal challenges and an unwelcome emphasis on the process rather than the detail of what independence will mean for the people of Scotland. While all this will only swell support for independence, there is a danger that the Scottish people will become - in the minds of some politicians - mere footnotes in a constitutional wrangle.

If the Gibraltar experience tells us anything, its that Westminster governments tend to view these important questions of sovereignty as at best a political game; detached from the human dimension, the right to self-determination is recognised only in light of the need to retain "relations with Europe" and maintain the constitutional status quo as a means of preserving the "balance of power". The very colonial attitudes so derided by Hain are actually evident in much of his thinking; worse still, such colonial instincts lie at the heart of the Conservatives' and Labour's approach to Scotland's future.

It's vital that the 2014 referendum gives Scotland the constitutional future its people want. It's also vital that the coming debate centres on the needs of Scottish people rather than on political prejudices or personalities. For this reason, I'm hoping to put forward a topical motion for Scottish Lib Dem Spring Conference in which I will ask the party to work with the SNP and Westminster to ensure that we have a two-question referendum for the options of independence and devo-max - and to ensure that the outcome is both implemented and determined by Scottish people rather than the courts.

I hope we can have Scotland's future discussed at conference and that for a commonsense liberal approach to triumph over shallow anti-nationalism. I trust my liberal-minded friends in all parties agree.

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